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MC 413; DVD-120

Polier, Justine Wise, 1903-1987. Papers of Justine Wise Polier, 1892-2015: A Finding Aid

Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University


Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

The papers were processed with a grant from Clara Goldberg Schiffer.

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: MC 413; DVD-120
Repository: Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Creator: Justine Wise Polier, 1903-1987
Title: Papers of Justine Wise Polier, 1892-2015
Date(s): 1892-2015
Quantity: 20.4 linear feet (48 and two half file boxes) plus 1 folio folder, 1 folio+ folder, 1 DVD)
Language of materials: Materials in English.
Abstract: Correspondence, reports, oral histories, photographs, etc., of Justine Wise Polier, judge and authority on juvenile justice.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

Accession numbers: 78-M112, 78-M144 79-M19, 80-M147 81-M116, 82-M215 83-M28, 83-M39, 83-M50, 85-M260 88-M57, 88-M114 88-M180, 90-M41, 90-M209, 2001-M35, 2015-M81
Most of these papers were given to the Schlesinger Library by Justine Wise Polier between July 1978 and May 1985; others were given by her daughter, Trudy (Hess Bradley) Festinger, between April 1988 and March 2001, the Field Foundation in November 1988, Dr. Viola Bernard in March and December 1990, and by her granddaughter, Debra Bradley Ruder, in June 2015. Those accessions given in March 2001 and June 2015 (2001-M35 and 2015-M81) were added to the collection in September 2015 and are represented by #609-612 and DVD-120.1.

Processing Information:

Processed: June 1992
By: Jane S. Knowles, Ann Berman, Deborah Tucker
Updated and additional materials added: September 2015
By: Anne Engelhart


Access. Unrestricted, except that researchers must sign special form. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use:

Copyright. Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Justine Wise Polier is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.
Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.

Preferred Citation:

Justine Wise Polier Papers, 1892-2015; item description, dates. MC 413, folder #. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.


Justine Wise Polier, judge and authority on juvenile justice, was the daughter of Stephen Samuel and Louise (Waterman) Wise. Both parents were strong influences on their daughter: Stephen Wise was an inspirational reform rabbi, founder of the U.S. Free Synagogue, a leader of the U.S. Zionist movement, and active in social and labor reform; Louise Wise, social worker and painter, was the founder of Louise Wise Services, a social service agency.
Polier was born on April 12, 1903, in Portland, Oregon, where her father was rabbi, and grew up in New York City. She attended Bryn Mawr (1920-1922) and Radcliffe (1922-1923), and received her A.B. from Barnard (1924). She worked in a textile mill in Passaic, New Jersey, to experience factory life first-hand, took part in a union drive and strike, and left the mill when she was blacklisted by her employer. She studied briefly at the International Labor Office in Geneva (1924-1925) and visited and wrote about the Soviet Union. She then entered Yale Law School, was editor of the Yale Law Review, and received her LL.B in 1928. She married (1927) one of her professors, Leon Tulin; they had one son, Stephen Wise Tulin. After her husband's death in 1932, she married (ca.1936) Shad Polier; they had two children: Trudy (Hess Bradley) Festinger and Jonathan Wise Polier.
In an oral history interview, Polier recalled that she had attended Yale not because she wanted to practice law, but because she was interested in social and labor legislation. At the urging of Franklin Roosevelt, Frances Perkins hired her as Referee (1929-1934), and then Assistant Corporation Counsel (1934-1935) in the Workmen's Compensation Division of the New York State Department of Labor. Her study of workmen's compensation led to changes in the law enabling workers to choose their own physicians, thereby eliminating mismanagement and misuse of funds. In 1935 she was appointed counsel to the New York City Emergency Relief Bureau and to Mayor LaGuardia's Committee on Unemployment Relief. Insisting that public assistance was completely inadequate for the one million unemployed workers in the city, she clashed with General Hugh Johnson, the relief "czar." Later that year she was appointed judge in the New York State Family Court (then the Domestic Relations Court) of the City of New York, the first woman in the state to hold a judicial office higher than that of magistrate.
The court, which was new when Polier joined it, embodied the progressive ideal of paternalistic intervention by the State in what was considered the best interests of children. Polier's tenure on the bench (1935-1973) was consistently inspired by an activist judicial philosophy in which she perceived the court as the best vehicle to assure the welfare of neglected and dependent children. She saw gaps and discrimination in child welfare services and sought to secure nonsectarian and nonsegregated shelters for neglected children, humane detention centers for delinquents, adequate foster homes, youth camps, and expanded psychiatric and clinical services. She pioneered the "treatment method" of juvenile justice, seeing the court not as a means of punishment or part of criminal proceedings, but as an arm of the social services whose goal was to understand, assess, and diagnose the causes of anti-social behavior, and to prescribe remedies. Community organizations alone, she thought, could not be entrusted with this role. In the 1960s and 1970s, Polier's philosophy increasingly fell out of favor with liberals who distrusted authority, were suspicious of paternalism, and focused, according to Polier, more on the rights and less on the needs of children. She believed that critics too often castigated the limited effectiveness of the juvenile courts and the life of barren alienation in juvenile institutions, when they should have concentrated on the deteriorating social and economic conditions, inadequate public education, and poor health services.
While on the court, Polier served on the Committee on Institutions, a standing committee of the Family Court, which investigated New York City's facilities for children, especially those belonging to the Manhattan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She was also a staunch and early champion of the civil rights of Blacks. Finding few facilities that would admit delinquent Black Protestant youths, she helped found Wiltwyck School for Boys, a nonsectarian, interracial training school, and served on its board (1942-1981). In the Skipwith attendance case (1958-1961), Polier found that de facto segregation existed in schools in Harlem and castigated the Board of Education for practicing educational discrimination. She was also one of the initiators of a class action suit (Wilder v. Sugarman, 1971-1978) against all private and public foster care agencies in New York City on the grounds that their policies resulted in a child welfare system that discriminated against Black children. Observers in her court commented on her sensitivity, and her concentration on the needs of the child. She lived up to her claim that justice should not be blindfolded, but observant and quick to respond.
In 1973 Polier retired from the Family Court to devote herself to writing and to reform of juvenile justice on a national scale. As director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund, 1973-1976, she traveled throughout the U.S., speaking, investigating, and giving expert testimony. Her office sponsored major studies: the detention of children in adult jails, the transfer of children from juvenile to adult courts (waivers), and the practice of banishment of children out of state beyond the reach of family members. At her initiative, Children's Defense Fund served as amicus curiae in such lawsuits as Roe v. Norton (1973-1975), concerning misallocation of AFDC (Aid for Families with Dependent Children) funds.
Polier's voluntary activities were closely interconnected with her professional interests. She served on the Joint Commission of the Institute of Judicial Administration and the American Bar Association, which set national standards in the field of juvenile justice, as well as the New York State Committee on Children and the Advisory Review Board on Human Resources for New York City. She chaired the State Committee on Mental Health Services and was president of Louise Wise Services that offered comprehensive services to unmarried mothers. She was president of the American Jewish Congress - Women's Division, on the board of the Field Foundation and the Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, and member of many other city and state committees. As an associate and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt (ER), she worked with her on the Citizens' Committee for Children and the board of Wiltwyck School. Polier was one of a group who tried with Roosevelt's advice, but unsuccessfully, to bring 10,000 German Jewish children to the United States. Roosevelt invited her to join the Office of Civilian Defense, where she served as a volunteer for three months, 1942-1943.
Polier was a prolific writer in the field of juvenile justice, publishing several books: Everybody's Child, Nobody's Child, 1943, Back to What Woodshed, 1956, A View From the Bench, 1964, and Juvenile Justice in Double Jeopardy (posthumous, 1989), and many articles, reports, and speeches. She also wrote and spoke on labor, and race issues, and Israel and the Middle East.
Polier died on July 31, 1987.


The papers have been rearranged in the following seven series: readers should note, however, that the same or related topics, issues, persons, and organizations occur in Series II-VI.


Justine Wise Polier's papers document her life-long commitment to juvenile justice and the welfare of children of all races and religions. They span her early career as labor activist and labor lawyer, her work as judge of the Family Court (1935-1973), and the more national focus of her work as Director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund (1973-1976). They also document her committee and task force assignments and her voluntary service with child welfare organizations in New York.
Polier filed her papers by topic, or personal or organizational name. For the most part the original file folder titles have been retained, and descriptive notes and dates added where necessary. Folder titles that are not Polier's are in square brackets. Additional material received in 2001 and 2015 (accession numbers 2001-M35 and 2015-M81) were added to the collection in September 2015. These materials are housed in #609-612 and DVD-120.1. All other files remain in the same order. Folders are listed in intellectual, not numerical, order.
Series I, Personal and early career (#609-612, DVD-120.1, 1-23). Photographs, awards, clippings, a baby book, and oral histories provide an overview of Polier's life and work. Family correspondence, memos, and reports document her early career as a labor activist at the Passaic Textile Mills (1924-1926), and as counsel in the Workmen's Compensation Division of the New York State Department of Labor (1931-1935). Also includes a DVD and script of a play about her life by Ellen W. Kaplan, 2013-1025.
Series II, Family Court (#24-106), spans the years 1935-1973 and contains correspondence with other judges, memoranda, opinions, court transcripts, clippings, and reports of committees on which Polier sat by virtue of her appointment as judge: e.g., the Committee on Institutions which surveyed New York City institutional facilities for children, 1936-1971, and the Mental Health Services Committee, 1935-1969, which instigated mental health screening for children in the Family Court. Until 1962 the court was known as the Domestic Relations Court.
Series III, Children's Defense Fund (#107-204), consists of records of Polier's work as director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund. It includes studies sponsored by the Children's Defense Fund, correspondence with Marian Wright Edelman and other child welfare experts, memoranda dictated by Polier for the files, documents from court cases in which Polier served as an expert witness or the Children's Defense Fund was an amicus curiae, and records of her travels, speeches, and research throughout the United States.
Series IV, Subject files (#205-385), contains reports, memos, and correspondence on topics relating to juvenile justice; many of these papers are relevant to Series II and III. They include files on adoption, child abuse and neglect, illegitimacy, racism, religious and race discrimination, the history of the juvenile court, mental health services for children, and refugee affidavits. They also include court transcripts for two cases relating to segregation: in schools (Skipwith) and in foster care institutions (Wildman v. Sugarman), and Polier's testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Series V, Organizations, task forces, and commissions (#386-491), contains correspondence, minutes, and reports of the myriad organizations that Polier served as president, chairman, or board member: American Jewish Congress, Antioch School of Law, Citizens' Committee for Children, Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, Field Foundation, Joint Commission of the Institute of Judicial Administration and American Bar Association, Louise Wise Services, New York City Commission on the Foster Care of Children, New York City Human Resources Review Board: Child Care Task Force, New York Foundation and Board of Education Survey of Three Harlem Schools, New York State Task Force on Juvenile Violence, New York State Task Force on Mental Services for Children and Youth, and Wiltwyck School.
Series VI, Correspondence (#492-608), follows Polier's arrangement; the letters are largely professional in nature.
Series VII, Writings and speeches (#540-608), includes early writings on the labor movement, Soviet Union, and workmen's compensation, and later writings on juvenile justice, mental health, race discrimination, and the State of Israel.


Container List

Additional Index Terms

Accident insurance
Aid to families with dependent children programs
Baby books
Child abuse--Investigation
Child abuse--Law and legislation
Child welfare
Children--Legal status, laws, etc.
Civil rights movements--United States
Discrimination, Religious aspects
Domestic relations
Foster home care
Health insurance
Institutional care
Israel--Politics and government
Jewish women--United States
Jews--United States
Juvenile delinquency
Juvenile delinquents--Mental health services
Juvenile delinquents--Services for
Juvenile justice, Administration of
Labor movement
Labor unions
Mental health
New Deal, 1933-1939
New York (N.Y.)--Social conditions
Oral histories
Public welfare
Race discrimination
Race relations
Unmarried mothers
Youth--Legal status, laws, etc.
Youth--Services for
Abram, Morris B.
Alvarez, Luis W., 1911-
American Jewish Congress
American Jewish Congress. Women's Division
Antioch School of Law
Bazelon, David L. (David Lionel), 1909-
Bellamy, Carol
Bernard, Viola W., 1907-
Borah, William Edgar, 1865-1940
Brandeis, Susan
Carey, Hugh L.
Child Welfare League of America
Children's Defense Fund (U.S.)
Coles, Robert
Durr, Virginia Foster
Edelman, Marian Wright
Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (New York, N.Y.)
Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York
Field Foundation (New York, N.Y.)
Freud, Anna, 1895-1982
Harvard Law School
Hedgeman, Anna Arnold, 1899-1990
Highlander Folk School (Monteagle, Tenn.)
Hill, John Warren
IJA-ABA Joint Commission on Juvenile Justice Standards
Impellitteri, Vincent R. (Vincent Richard), 1900-1987
Javits, Jacob K. (Jacob Koppel), 1904-1986
Johnson, Hugh S. (Hugh Samuel), 1882-1942
Johnson, Lady Bird, 1912-2007
Kellogg, Paul Underwood, 1879-1958
Kennedy, Edward Moore, 1932-
LaFollette, Robert M., 1855-1925
La Guardia, Fiorello H. (Fiorello Henry), 1882-1947
Lash, Trude W.
Louise Wise Services (New York, N.Y.)
Manhattan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (New York, N.Y.)
Murray, Pauli, 1910-1985
Nathan, Otto, 1893-1987
New York (State). Family Court (City of New York)
Reich, Charles A.
Ritter, Bruce, 1927-
Roosevelt, Anna, 1906-1975
Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962 -- Friends and associates
Sachar, Abram Leon, 1899-1993
Schlesinger, Arthur M. (Arthur Meier), 1917-2007
United States. Children's Bureau
United States. Congress. House. Special Committee on Un-American Activities (1934)
United States. Congress. House. Special Committee on Un-American Activities (1938-1944)
United States. Office of Civilian Defense
Union of Democratic Action
Vorenberg, James
White, Walter Francis, 1893-1955
Wickenden, Elizabeth, 1909-
Wiltwyck School for Boys (Esopus, N.Y.)
Wise, Louise Waterman, 1901-1947
Wise, Stephen Samuel, 1874-1949